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foot bridge next to clear spring at a state park near columbia missouriOn the northern edge of the Ozarks, Columbia, in mid-Missouri, is surrounded by the forested foothills and rolling grasslands and is the fourth-largest and fastest-growing city in the “Show Me State.” There’s much to love about Columbia.

Columbia, home to the three prominent educational institutions, the University of Missouri, Columbia College, and Stephens College, is renowned for its commitment to higher education. The college-town vibe and an active theater, music, and art scene all impart a vibrant energy, making it an exciting city to live in and visit.

Also called CoMo, it is also home to many unique eateries, ranging from casual to fine dining; the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau has done the footwork and curated a list of the best—the site is also a valuable resource for events, shopping, and must-sees.

Once you’ve explored CoMo and are ready to get out and about in the great outdoors, the Missouri state park system consistently receives kudos as one of the best. A visit to one of the many parks near Columbia illustrates why.

First—state parks are free. And next, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources has done its homework and focuses on “emphasizing natural resources and cultural/historical resources by equal measure” and cultivating strong citizen support.

Let’s visit state parks near Columbia and see why Missouri continually is one of the best park systems in the nation.

Map of State Parks Near Columbia MO

Here is a map of the Missouri state parks covered in this post:

List of State Parks Near Columbia

Here are each of those state parks with distance from Columbia and what is special about each.

1. Rock Bridge Memorial State Park

Location: 5901 South Highway 163, Columbia, MO 65203

Only ten minutes south of Columbia, but worlds away, is Rock Bridge Memorial State Park, where Devil’s Icebox takes center stage with above-ground wooden bridges, pathways, and below-ground caves. Wondering how the Icebox got its name? The temperature in the cave never varies; it’s always a cool 56ºF.

Also to explore are Rock Bridge, the park’s namesake, a natural rock bridge formed by erosion, and Conner’s Cave. Both are open for spelunking and caving. Devil’s Icebox Cave is currently closed to protect the local bat population from white-nose syndrome.

Gans Creek Wild Area and Gans Creek are other interesting areas worth exploring. Trails meander past the bluffs that surround the creek, sinkholes, glades, and unique flora. The parks’ caves, sinkholes, bluffs, and meadows are geological characteristics of a karst landscape—an area with plentiful rainfall and bedrock that dissolves easily. The bedrock in this region is limestone, a very soft stone.

Other activities in Rock Bridge are hiking, biking, horse riding, and picnicking. There is a “special-use campground” for children. The park is otherwise for day-use only.

Helpful tips: If you plan to explore the caves, wear sturdy waterproof boots and bring your headlamp, the caves are wet environments.

2. Boone’s Lick State Historic Site

Location: MO-187, Franklin, MO 65250

Head about forty-minutes west of CoMo on to see the remnants of the old saltworks, Boone’s Lick, discovered by the sons of Daniel Boon. Historically, salt was an essential preservative to keep meat from spoiling and for tanning hides. The springs in this area were an important source of salt; in 1805, a saltworks enterprise was established here.

There is a picnic site, a short hiking trail that leads to original building remnants, and an iron kettle used in salt-making. There are also exhibits that explain the history and the laborious evaporation process.

Interesting fact: The salt operation here, at its height, had two furnaces running with 60 kettles producing 30 bushels of salt a day. It takes about 250 to 300 gallons of water to make one bushel which sold for $2.50.

3. Graham Cave State Park

Location: 217 State Hwy TT, Danville, MO 63361

Graham Cave State Park, 45 minutes east of Columbia, is a beautiful area home to a prehistoric cave that has seen thousands of years of use verified through an extensive and well-preserved collection of artifacts. In the early 1950s, excavations revealed that Graham Cave had been used for at least 10,000 years since the ice age.

The park has several hiking trails, including several in the Graham Cave Glades Natural Area; other activities are picnicking, fishing, boating, and camping. There are interpretative panels and displays throughout the park providing more information on Graham Cave.

Interesting fact: The most important archaeological discoveries in the cave were a “fluted spear point and arrowhead from the ancient Dalton Period,” safely tucked away in a vault.

4. Ha Ha Tonka State Park

Location: 1491 Missouri D, Camdenton, MO 65020

Ha Ha Tonka State Park, located an hour and a half south, is a haven for viewing a spectacular plethora of karst (see an explanation in the segment on Rock Bridge Park) features all in one location. The park is a series of trails and boardwalks that meander through endless impressive geological wonders from a natural rock bridge to a massive sinkhole called the Colosseum.

There is also the Ha Ha Tonka Spring which pumps out 48 million gallons of water daily, and a turn-of-the-century abandoned castle. The name Ha Ha Tonka is thought to come from an Osage Native American phrase meaning “laughing waters,” referring to the bubbling (and productive) springs.

With 14 walking trails that lead you to some of the most stunning scenery in the “Show Me State” and opportunities to fish, paddle and picnic, Ha Ha Tonka is a thrilling outdoors experience you’ll never forget.

Helpful tip: If you happen to run out of activities, you can always rent a kayak (April through October) and paddle underneath the massive sandstone bluffs in Ha Ha Tonka Lake.

5. Mastodon State Historic Site

Location: 1050 Charles J Becker Dr, Imperial, MO 63052

Mastodon State Historic Site is a bit of a haul from Columbia, two hours west, but worth the effort, especially if you have youngsters. Besides setting on the Kimmswick Bone Bed, a significant paleo history site, another important discovery happened here.

In 1979, scientists dug up spear points next to mastodon bones, giving hard evidence that humans hunted mastodons. If you need one more reason to visit this site, the gigantic mastodon skeleton replica in the museum should sway you.

The museum and visitor center have informative displays, artifacts from the Bone Bed, and a video that explains the site. Don’t miss the walking trails located on the grounds; one will take you to the exact spot where the mastodon bones and spear points were found.

Interesting fact: The Kimmswick Bone Bed has yielded many artifacts over time. Scientists theorize that the area was a former water spring and swamp and that the massive mastodons and other creatures that came here for water may have gotten sucked into the mud and were unable to escape.